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Listen, this process called poetry is an exercise in imagining memory, and then having that memory snare and cherish imagination.

Breyten Breytenbach


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Thursday, May 16th, 2013

The Art of Resurrection

Hernán Rivera Letelier grew up in the mining towns of Humberstone and Algorta, in Chile's Norte Grande, at the tail end of the nitrate-mining era: a major stage in Chile's history and in the history of the industrialized world. He tells Ariel Dorfman (as related in Dorfman's Desert Memories, 2004) that his earliest memories are of "eavesdropping on [the] adult conversations" of the miners who ate their meals in the Letelier home; his mother padded the family budget by selling home-cooked meals to the bachelor miners. The stories he was listening to were of the last remnants of the nitrate industry, already moribund by the time of his childhood; he listened well, and has built a successful career as one of Chile's most popular novelists (although mostly overlooked, until recently, outside of Chile) telling the stories of the pampa salitrera, the mining camps built in the Atacama desert at the end of the 19th Century by British and German firms and operated until the middle of the 20th Century, and of the people who lived and worked there.

Rivera Letelier's 13 novels to date span the length of the nitrate-mining era and the breadth of the Atacama desert -- from the 1907 massacre of striking workers retold and reconstructed in Our Lady of the Dark Flowers (2002), to the 1942 mining camp strike in Providencia in the (surreal) Art of Resurrection (2010), to the later dusty remnants of Coya Sur in The Fantasist (2006), on the verge of becoming a ghost town -- somewhat reminiscent in all of Faulkner's treatment of Mississippi. (or John Ford's, of the Old West?) The Art of Resurrection won the prestigious Premio Alfaguara and has happily brought his work some well-deserved recognition. It is the story of a week in the life of Domingo Zárate Vega ("better known to all as the Christ of Elqui," sort of a Chilean Rasputin who wandered the country in the mid-20th Century preaching his gospel) -- in which he searches for, finds, and loses his own Magdalene.

My translation of a portion of Chapter 4 of the book will be up soon at The Unmuzzled Ox, under the title "Christ in the Desert".

posted evening of May 16th, 2013: 1 response
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Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Reflections on the desert

With all this composition and revision, I am getting unnervingly close* to having a finished draft translation of The art of resurrection on my computer and in my notebooks and in my head. Now is the time for me to admit to myself, it is very unlikely that this will ever see publication, or be read by anyone else than (obsessively) myself and (gratifyingly) friends I send the Word file to. (And if you are one of those friends, thanks greatly for the interest and for the kind words, and if you are not but would like to be, then definitely get in touch, I am glad to send drafts around.) This will very likely end up in the category (if there even is such a category) of "fan-translation," an amateur's first foray into translation of a novel, spurred on by infatuation with the book; something to be proud of certainly but not something that will (so to speak) make my name as a translator.

So what do I get out of it if not publication? Well -- it ia a hugely fun project. So there's that -- I can't really think of a better way I could have spent these past months of evenings and weekend, than by reading and rereading this book and my translation of it. And too, it has truly been increasing the intimacy of my relationship with language: I am feeling fluent in English in ways I had not realized before, that I lacked fluency. I think I am gaining, as well, some skill in or understanding of storytelling, and in the process of revision.

So -- that's my story and I'm sticking with it. (And yes, I am submitting this translation for publication, thinking of a couple of different places. And keeping my fingers crossed.) Tomorrow I am going to start composing my notes and excerpts for the submission. Here are a couple of great things about this novel: Narrative Person. I don;t think I've encountered another author able so easily and so subtly/seamlessly to shift between 3rd-person narrative, 1st-person recollection, 1st-person-plural narration, paraphrase and dialog -- the subtlety of structure can be a bit tricky to untangle at times, but it makes for a very pleasant sensual response to the way you slide around, between different camera angles and lenses. Squalid Erotica. The sex scenes between Magalena Mercado and the Christ of Elqui are uncomfortably, weirdly titillating . Haunting Irreality. The eerie final chapters will keep you up at night. (This is almost the opposite of Magical Realism!) Slapstick Meditation on Faith. Rivera Letelier's reverent (and at the same time bawdy) treatment of the Christ of Elqui's faith and lunacy is inspiring and touching. I have had the sense all along, despite the passages that I couldn't quite get in the original, that this is a great novel; and reading the English is bearing that out. This is just a pearl of a book.

posted evening of April 13th, 2013: 2 responses
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Saturday, April 6th, 2013

He oído cantar el gallo, y no sé dónde

So, so much fun to find a Dylan lyric in a Spanish language text!

Remorseful at the news, there were a few of the men who wanted to call an emergency union meeting, to see what could be done; but the union leaders were in Antofagasta, waiting to meet with the provincial authorities. They would not be back until after Christmas. And then others, the most political, the ones who knew something was happening, but weren't sure just what -- in a low voice they were urging that we take the dynamite which the patizorros had cached (in case the strike lasted too long, and the military was called in -- they had seen that happen in other salitreras), and attack the guards head-on. But in the end common sense reigned, the decision was just to keep watch and make sure they didn't do Maguita any harm.

posted afternoon of April 6th, 2013: 6 responses
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Sunday, March 31st, 2013

Happy Easter!

From The Art of Resurrection:

The radios and newspapers began to print and broadcast news of this prophet come down from the hills above the Elqui; an uncivilized campesino, has not cut his hair for years, or his beard or his nails; doesn't even have a grade-school education and yet he can preach for hours before the rapt multitudes, the inflamed rhetoric of an illuminated mestizo, a creole prophet, a Coquimbo messiah. The crowds were shocked to hear him say that the All-powerful is not only with those who go to church, who confess and do penance; his mercy is far greater than that, my brothers, his love is greater than this world, it does not stop at the horizon, is more vast than the very mansion of heaven; he comes not looking for the good or the saintly, he comes to save the wicked and to pardon the sinner. His sacrifice on the cross was for all of us. Including you, my brother, you in the hat with the turned-up brim, making fun of the sacred word!

posted morning of March 31st, 2013: 1 response

Saturday, March 30th, 2013

Translation, Revision: practice and progress

In the past few months of not-blogging-much (and not at all, I suppose, about translation), I have been quite busy with reading and re-reading The art of resurrection and extending the excerpt I published in translation. I thought a good thing to write about here would be the manner in which I've been doing the translation.

Essentially I've split the process into four (or 3 1/2) phases, rough draft, revision, close read of the revision, second revision. I have (mostly) finished this process for the first 2/3 of the book and taking a break to look at what I've come up with; I must say, reading my translation feels a whole lot to me like reading the original feels to me -- not sure if that has any bearing at all on how others will perceive the text.

The rough draft process is always done longhand; much of it takes place on the train to and from work. This is where I read the Spanish and write very rough, almost literal translation as fast as I can, with (ideally) very little re-reading. The goal is to come up with something vaguely like a Google Translate translation, where the sentence structure is not quite right and some of the words are untranslated or incorrectly translated, but the overall structure and meaning of the sentence can be divined.

Revision is transferring my rough draft onto the computer, tweaking the language so it reads smoothly and sounds right, and communicates the image in the original. This is a much slower process and involves a lot of looking up words and phrases (at variously, Span¡shD!ct, Google Translate, WordReference.com,... the list goes on...) and consulting with friends and acquaintances, thanks all!

Now it's time for a close read of what you've done so far. Print out a few chapters of what's on the computer, and spend a few days reading it, marking changes in the text or on the computer. When done, go through the document adding in the changes you have marked.

What's great about this process is I never feel like I am or should be dealing with a finished product so I'm free to leave notes and uncertainties in the text. What I have now for chapters 1-16 reads really well, mostly, but there are still notes in it about changes that need to be made. Obvious? Probably, but this feels like the first time I am really believing it.

posted afternoon of March 30th, 2013: 2 responses
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Saturday, March second, 2013

Still life with El arte de la resurrección

posted evening of March second, 2013: Respond
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Sunday, December 16th, 2012

porotos: making it up as I go

And on every one of these occasions, plus many others as well, the Christ of Elqui's response was simply to recite this verse, as boring already as the menu of a pulpería: "I'm very sorry, dear brother, my dear sister, very sorry; but the sublime art of resurrection belongs exclusively to Our Divine Master."

And that is what he said to the miners who arrived caked with dirt, carrying the cadaver of their workmate, just at the moment when he was most full of grace, preaching before the people on what diabolical influence the modern world could wreak on the spirit of even a devout Catholic, a believer in God and the Blessed Virgin Mother. The gang of calicheros broke through the midst of the crowd of worshippers carrying on their shoulders the body of the deceased; clearly dead of a heart attack, they were telling him as they laid the body with care at his feet, stretched out on the burning sand.

Upset, embarrassed, everyone talking at the same time, the rednecks were explaining to him how after they had eaten their lunch, the Thursday plate of porotos burros, the group of them had been on their way down for a drop to drink, to "wet the whistle," and that's when tragedy struck -- their fellow worker, all of a sudden he grabbed at his chest with both hands, he fell to the ground as if hit by lightning -- not even a chance to say so much as help!

The art of resurrection: Chapter 1
I have been wondering about porotos -- it seems to be a Chilean word for "beans" or maybe just for food. Still not sure what preparation porotos burros is (or is it just "stupid beans"/ "just plain beans again"?); but in the course of looking around the net today I found a couple of recipes for porotos granados, a dish which appears to consist of whatever vegetables are around plus beans and winter squash, cooked up together into a stew. I'm game, and so were Ellen and Sylvia; so I made up my own version of porotos granados for dinner tonight. It was tasty! Herewith the recipe I followed, a rough compromise between the different ones I found online and what ingredients were to hand:

Porotos granados

  1. Cook beans until tender. I used ¾ pound dry of cranberry beans. Cook with dried oregano and bay leaves. Add some salt when they get soft-but-not-tender.
  2. Peel and chop squash and veggies. I used 1 medium butternut squash and a couple of carrots as well. Fresh corn is a recommended component but is not available to me this time of year; canned or frozen corn probably would have added a lot to the dish as well.
  3. In a stock pot, saute 9 cloves of garlic, minced, and two chopped onions in a good amount of oil. Season with a tbsp. ground cumin and more oregano. Add squash, veggies, and beans. Add a little water, not enough to cover the vegetables, and cover the pot.
  4. Let simmer for about 45 minutes, adding water if it gets too dry. When everthing is falling apart, mash it together with a wooden spoon -- it should be about the consistency of lumpy mashed potatoes.
  5. Serve with a salad of bell peppers and minced cilantro; sour cream and hot sauce make good condiments.

posted evening of December 16th, 2012: Respond
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Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Two metaphors for the sun

I'm working further on my translation of Hernán Rivera Letelier's El arte de la resurrección... Vague plans to write an interesting cover letter for the first four chapters in rough draft translation and see if I could find a publisher who'd be interested in having me work on the book.

Obviously there is a lot of sun to describe in this book, taking place as it does in the Atacama desert. I found this metaphor just gorgeous:

The Christ of Elqui left the station. The town of Sierra Gorda, nailed down here on the bottom of purgatory, seemed to be completely empty. It seemed an oasis, a mirage in the desert -- indeed its only inhabitant appeared to be the sunshine, stretched out lazy on its four dirt roads, a giant, yellow mongrel dog.
(still not certain about "sunshine" there for "sol"...) -- This came just two pages past a darker image:
Many of their dear ones -- as they themselves would say, their voices low -- had probably died in a work accident, or in a barroom brawl, or infected by one of the epidemics which regularly tore through the north, or had fallen in one of the Army’s massacres of the saltpetre workers -- most had simply vanished into thin air, like the reverberating sun of mid-day vanishes into the desert. They rode the trains in hopes of meeting up with their kin, even if it were to be in a graveyard.

posted morning of December 8th, 2012: Respond

Sunday, December second, 2012

Rivera Letelier glossary

Nice find! (via a wordreference thread referencing The Art of Resurrection.)

posted morning of December second, 2012: Respond

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Sanos pensamientos en bien de la humanidad

The final 20% of The art of resurrection is captivating and engaging and I have not been writing about it very much, not finding much I have to say that would add to the reading experience... I cannot resist quoting a few maxims which Domingo Zárate Vega gives to the proprietor of the print shop in Pampa Unión (the shop he passed by in Chapter 3, when he made a note to stop there later to make more copies of his pamphlets), to print in his newspaper. The whole of Chapter 23 is an interview with Zárate Vega, más conocido por todos como el famoso Cristo de Elqui, running on Saturday December 27* in La Voz de la Pampa.

Some new sayings or proverbs, Teacher?

‘Honesty is the key to good friendship.’

‘Honor is a golden palace.’

‘The birds in the sky are more content than the wealthiest millionaires, although they sleep out in the open, with only their feathers for cover.’

And another that our Eternal Father revealed to me only a few days ago, as I was emptying my bowels in the open pampa: ‘A good remedy for pride, is that a man should turn his head back now and then, to observe his own shit.’

It is Eastertime here where I am reading, and it is Christmastime in the story.

*Which weirdly, December 27 1942 appears to have been a Sunday. That seems like a really weird mistake to make and I'm thinking there must be some explanation for it, like the newspaper being a weekend edition and taking the Sunday date or something... I'm kind of baffled by this.

posted morning of April 8th, 2012: Respond

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